Spiral Staircase

No one will ever approach you and say, “This looks like a good day to curl up and read poetry.” You have to do that for yourself. One great thing is — you can sneak it in, between all the other things you are doing. The poet William Stafford carried his own poems on small cards in his pockets — we may carry our own or someone else’s. Poetry books are often elegantly slim, which allows them to fit easily into purses or briefcases. The brevity is beneficial. You may read and reread in the same amount of time it might take to eat a few crackers with cheese. Your day will feel deeper, calmer, better. Once, a natty businessman seated next to me on an airplane began weeping when he saw me reading a book of poems. He said, “When I was young, poetry gave me so much hope. Why have I denied it to myself all these years?”

 *   *   *

Recently, while preparing dinner in our renovated hundred-year-old kitchen, now jazzed up with a new black sink, handmade green Mission tile from Mexico, and our first dishwasher (we’re very slow), a sense of negligence washed over me. What about the sunset? I thought. Have I sat with the sunset lately? Why not? What time is it? Leaving the garbanzos resting in the blender with their little moon of garlic, I hoofed it to the front porch and sat on the steps. Sure enough, the wide sky toward the west was softening into lovely pink stripes — all in unobtrusive silence. Cars were whizzing home, buses rounding the corner. But the beautiful big sky — that ripe pink and purple sky above the pecan trees, the Mexican cafés, and the abandoned Judson candy factory — radiated outward in stripes. Taking a long breath, I closed my eyes, then opened them again to see the plum-colored swirls intensify and merge. Right then my neighbor Amparo walked by, noticed me sitting there, and called out across our fence, “What’s wrong?” Usually she speaks Spanish to me, but these conversations often end abruptly, so now she tries English. What’s wrong?

I laughed, pointing. “Nothing is wrong! It’s right! Look up at the sky!”

She turned and looked, shrugged, and said, “I thought you locked out.” She walked on.

This is what we have come to in our culture — you sit down to rest, to breathe and to stare, without doing anything, and it appears peculiar.

I’d like to go back in time.

“What do you hope to do in your life?”

“Gaze at things. Thank you.”

 *   *   *

Beginning at about the age of three, I was regularly attracted outside onto the square concrete porch of our St. Louis home to watch the softening light. A gray midwestern glow or a lonesome yellow beam said, Take heed. Notice me. I am going now and you will soon be shipping off to bed. It made me feel poignant — already I was nostalgic for a different kind of slow-paced life.

The only good thing about going to bed was hearing our father’s wonderful Palestinian folktales, which made us laugh happily, and, afterwards, our mother’s voice, winding us down with resonant poems, spoken in a calm, deliberate tone. Frequently her daily voice was harried and nervous, so this nocturnal care for each syllable felt delicious. She read Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, Carl Sandburg. . . . I loved poetry’s leaping interweave, the selectiveness of each magical word. Poetry wasn’t worrying about anything. It was contemplating. I loved the rich descriptions of lines and scenes. Poetry wasn’t trying to get us to do anything, it was simply inviting us to think, and feel, and see. It was language we could tuck under our chins. A cool sheet, a cotton quilt.

Poetry’s understated quality of hinting somehow felt better than the words that got passed around the rest of the day. With intimate immediacy, poetry took me to a deeper place, a time-pillow of heightened consciousness. I am sitting on the step of the book, soaking something in . . .

I also liked the way poetry looked on the page — all that white space around the words suggested that each word had honor.

Henry David Thoreau said that “to see the sun rise or go down every day . . . would preserve us sane forever.”

It’s the pause we humans are desperate for. If you don’t think everyone is desperate, ask a gymnasium of kindergartners how many of them feel they have too much to do and are always rushing, and nearly every hand will go up. They don’t have to ask what you mean, either. They know.

Poems can really help.

*   *   *

Now that our house is renovated, everyone who walks in keeps mentioning the black iron spiral staircase to the upstairs, which they have never noticed before, though it has been there for twenty-four years. What a great staircase! How did you get it IN HERE? Is that an attic up there?

Well, it used to be an attic, but it has been a bedroom and study for twenty-four years.

How come I never noticed the staircase before?

Well, recently we took out this wall here. Not even a whole wall. Half a wall. So now your eye falls onto it first thing when you enter.

That’s all? You took out a wall?

Poetry takes out a wall and helps us see what was already there, elegantly spiraling in a quiet corner of the same room we have been inhabiting — oh, quite a while now.

 *   *   *

Scout is dead, and we are grieving. Our little gray cat, who was left as a baby with his brother and sister in a shoebox on the steps of a vet’s office in Austin, Texas, with two hundred dollars in one-dollar bills and a shaky handwritten note: A moment of weakness resulted in these beautiful babies. Please help them find good homes.

We hope we gave him one, for the last five years. His death was sudden — during a regular check-up, his doctor discovered an irrevocable tumor growing in his throat and said we had to let him go.

It is incredible how attached three human beings can be to one cat. My husband, son, and I have been moping around the house since his death. In a world where violent loss of human life has become a disgusting “regular” in each day’s headlines, we’re nevertheless suffering an acute vacancy.

Startlingly, each one of us thinks we had the essential best relationship with Scout. Now, in his absence, we sit and talk about him, telling details the others didn’t know.

I did not know that every time I left town, he would go meow at my husband’s studio door, to be let in, to curl on a particular maroon rug. My husband and I did not know that he sat on our son’s desk every evening (up that spiral staircase) and put his chin on our son’s arm at the computer. And neither of them knew the intricate minuet of rituals the cat and I performed every day at 4:30 a.m., because no one else was awake then.

Somehow there is a kind of cat-poetry in this: three different perspectives on one eccentric purring guy.

When I went upstairs at 6:30 a.m. to read the morning poetry wake-up call (three different poems daily) to our son, Scout always went with me. He galloped up the staircase, then cocked his head to hear the poems. Who knows? Maybe he understood them best.

From the May/June 2005 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Poets & Poetry.

Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye is the current Young People’s Poet Laureate and author, most recently, of Cast Away: Poems for Our Time (Greenwillow).

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